(Editor’s note: This review was penned by crime fiction author and guest reviewer Greg Barth as part of our ongoing Crime-On-Crime Review Series)
Marietta Miles is a refreshing and bold new voice in crime fiction. Her latest work, Route 12, contains two novellas deeply rooted in the crime/noir genre. The first, the titular Route 12, takes place in 1970’s Belle Gap, Virginia. Route 12 is in equal parts about a young woman, Theresa, and a young man, Percy. Both have been rendered motherless and left either dealing with either the inadequacies of the system or in the hands of incapable relatives. It is this absence of maternal love and its consequences that establishes the circumstances of both characters. When Theresa crosses paths with Percy, what ensues feels so genuine, so real, and so horrifying, you are left hoping that nothing resembling this happens outside of fiction—but you know the truth is otherwise.
The book’s second novella, Blood and Sin, takes place in small-town North Carolina in 1964—a time and place still somewhat removed from the third wave of feminism and concepts such as reproductive rights and racial equality that we take for granted today. This was an era when reputation meant everything. The young protagonist, Naomi, finds herself in a bad situation. Pastor Friend, by both name and title, should be there to help her. The problem is, he just may have her worst interests in mind.
What can I say about the writing? Marietta Miles’ prose is a pure joy to read. Take Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, put them in a cage match to the death, and what emerges at the end comes close. Once you have the best of Flannery O’Connor (perhaps minus the “moment of grace” found in her stories), and Joyce Carol Oates (where she shines—her short stories), combine those with the harsh realism of Pelecanos (think The Turnaround and The Way Home), distill them down, cut away the fat, mix in the lean, sparse prose of Hemingway, and you get a feel for how Miles comes across on the page. Not quite nihilistic—there are glimmers of hope—but most definitely noir; and, like the best of contemporary noir, complete with bittersweet, almost tragic conclusions. If there is no moment of grace, each of these novellas contains a sacrifice. While utterly satisfying in the end, you are left with something that transcends the “Hollywood finale” scene.
While both Route 12 and Blood and Sin are lean pieces of work, none of the good stuff is missing—characterization, plotting, pacing, a sense of setting. What isn’t there? The bloated, boring parts. Once started, good luck finding a place to pause where you are not compelled to try one page more—just one. These novellas are just perfect—lean, sharp, and hard-hitting.
Would I hang heavy labels on it like “Feminist Noir?” I would, but only as an afterthought. Route 12 magnifies the importance of current, progressive strides made (feeble and incomplete as they are) by contrasting them with the harsh realities of the past. These novellas feel real. The characters and events feel real. These stories are tragic, each in their own way; but more than that, they are haunted. They are haunted by a sense of repressed and restrained femininity. They speak of a time before concepts such as date rape. They share the inequality, the stigma of slut shaming, the lack of feminine caring, the sense of female victimhood to male superiority, and the sheer discriminatory wrongness that existed in the 1970’s that I grew up in. They are haunted by the voices of a generation or more of women that quietly experienced this. Whether it is meant to be or not, Route 12 is poignantly, compellingly important.
But don’t let my talk of “importance” steer you away from Route 12. It is first and foremost one hell of an addition to the canon of crime fiction. And damned entertaining. I just can’t say it enough. If you read only one crime noir novel this year from a newer writer, you have to make it Marietta Miles. Don’t miss this one.